#SDLP16: Rome wasn’t made functional in a day, nor will Northern Ireland in one election

It’s well to remember that no SDLP leader has made a senior league speech since the single transferable days of John Hume. On Saturday night they got something approaching that. Eastwood covered things that have been neglected for much of the last 25 years.

It energised the hall which – lest we forget in this age of Twitter – actually does still matter. Particularly in the teeth of what is likely to be a very tough election for both nationalist parties. Growing Unionist turnout is now a feature rather than a bug in the system.

One thing that he may come to regret locally is using the Donegal outcome in the southern election to jibe Derry Sinn Fein about taking three out of six Assembly seats. There’s no operational comparison between Derry and the party’s much newer outfit in Donegal.

If he’s upped the ante for his own team he will also have motivated his local opponents to re-double their efforts to lay a few welts on his youthful political backside. The truth is though that the outcome will hurt whichever party the swinging door in Derry hits.

But nationalist parties seeking to make gains simply by canibalising each others seats (FST is now the only real banker the SDLP has, and that’s against Sinn Fein) suggests they’ve hit horse latitudes. And suggests a lack of any generative longer term strategy.

An old SDLP friend (no fan of the current leader) said to me early in Alasdair McDonnell’s time that when you stop using your voice as a leader you find it hard to get it back. Eastwood has certainly has a voice and some composure under pressure in interviews.

That’s not been the case for a long time. Like many of the new recruits Eastwood has taken “making Northern Ireland work” from the hard internal work of his predecessor but at least he has had the nerve to sell it to the wider public.

It seems to me that every new minor party leader has to break through a solid wall of fatalism, as much amongst their own supporters as in the wider public. He must now get his troops to beleive in a campaign that perhaps only they will believe they can win.

The way to face the Sysphyean challenge of past failures Rick Wilford mentioned is to frame the future differently. Eastwood means to foreground the intractable realities of Northern Ireland, over SF’s mysteriously umapped route to a united island.

Mystery can be a good ally in politics: it can allow you to disrupt, slap your opponents hard and then fade into the background.

There is, however, no mystery surrounding the stunted reality of policy development in Northern Ireland or the stop-start nature of governance within the office of OFMdFM.

There are good reasons why Invest NI has only put 1% of its budgets into West Belfast.  In highlighting it Eastwood raises the effects of long term political inaction in Sinn Fein’s bastion, matching their pitch with the trajectory of Cllr Gerry Carroll’s PBP campaign there.

None of this is going substantially change the broad outcome of the election.

These changes are probably too few, too unworked through and too late in the day for that. But they may be enough to affect the micro outcomes in the key battles the SDLP need to win to avoid their electoral rock slipping any further back down the hill.

However Cathy Gormley Heenan made several telling points yesterday when she noted how the public narrative will need time to catch up with the reality of a changed SDLP (which if they have a good day may be younger and fresher than its main rivals).

She also pointed out that publishing red lines for the Programme for Government negotiations (particularly if the SDLP has only only Executive seat) raises the possiblility of walking away for a temporary period in which SDLP hands will be untied on the two big parties.

How will any of it be paid for? Well, in the short term that may be covered by the manifesto. In the short term however I suspect the motive is to try to force their opponents to argue against motherhood and apple pie.

And then, after they are compelled to refuse, launch a more credible and comprehensive mainstream campaign to make Northern Ireland work from the comfort of opposition. If Rome wasn’t made functional in a day, nor will Northern Ireland in just one election.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • scepticacademic

    Sorry but aside from the broad-brush stuff, I’m still none the wiser, Mick. For those who haven’t seen the speech, and those of us who don’t follow the minutiae of party conferences, were there any clues as to what CE thinks is needed to “make NI work”? Has his new-look SDLP got any policies or a ‘vision thing’ yet? Or, more fundamentally: What’s the point of the SDLP in 2016? And who does it think it’s for?

  • Robin Keogh

    I agree with you regarding the Donegal jibe, he seems to be stumbling into ‘goading’ territory which is normally occupied by the likes of Jim Alistair or Sammy Wilson. Added to his swipe at SF in the Indo just before the general election, Shinners are up for a tussle; I will be canvassing in the six counties myself, first time ever. If it does anything it might at least push up the Nationalist turnout, a little lift is much needed.

  • Zig70

    That is the place where the SDLP might fall. In times past they have taken internal party optimism and seemed to presume it magically transferred to the public. They should learn from FF and get on the doorsteps and down the printers with a summarised version of that speech. Their votes weren’t loaned, they were lost to apathy and political misdirection. They won’t get them back with internal conference speeches.

  • Ernekid

    Well said Zig. FF did a lot better than most expected as they had an effective ground campaign and they managed to get their vote out on the day. Fianna Fáil were able to effectively tailor their local campaign strategy as they had kept their ears to the ground by listening to complaints and issues of people within local communities. The local FF candidates were also present at GAA grounds and parish events across communities.
    I’m not sure if the SDLP will manage to do the same they never been able to operate the politics of the parish pump as effectively as their counterparts in SF. They’ve given little new reasons for any unaligned voters to give them a first preference. People who are disaffected with SF are more likely to go to PBP or an independent than to SDLP.

  • mickfealty

    Good point, much remiss of me. Link added, and planning to get BBC coverage up on You Tube this evening…

  • scepticacademic

    Pete Shirlow made some good points in that BBC clip, I thought. Unifying a very disparate group of non-SF voters who lean towards the nationalist side could be tricky.

  • Nevin

    “Cathy Gormley Heenan made several telling points yesterday”

    Her 10-minute ‘honesty, transparency and accountability’ contribution on Saturday is worth a thread on its own.

  • Lionel Hutz

    That’s the eternal challenge for the party. I don’t know if it’s just me but I think that over the last few years they have been better at the local politics. I see more fliers through the door, more notices in the local newspapers and magazines. It always struck me how little attention the sdlp paid to that in the past. The improvement is nothing on the scale of Sinn Fein who seem to constantly have new placards up with a campaign slogan but the party has been more visible and given that they most likely don’t have the deep pockets that Sinn Fein do, it’s probably the best they can do

  • Jollyraj

    “I will be canvassing in the six counties myself, first time ever”

    It’s not often a man would find himself travelling to another country to find himself canvassing for the local elections there. I hope you’ll enjoy your stay in the UK.

  • mickfealty

    Compounded by similar diversity of view amongst its own members…

  • Jack Stone

    Sinn Fein’s problems in the Republic are the polar opposite to what they are in Northern Ireland. In the Republic, Sinn Fein has a young, untested, unseasoned election machine which has probably grown too quickly for it to be quite effective. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is entrenched in local communities with a dearth of local knowledge and a handle on voting habits.

    The problem the SDLP is facing is that, under the previous administration, it comes off as Sinn Fein Lite. It needs to moderate. Be more Fine Gael than SDLP. It must chase after the Pro Union Catholic voter, the Unionist lite voter and the upper middle class voter. Instead of fighting Sinn Fein for the mantle of Republicanism, they should be trying to make themselves the Northern Irish party. They cannot do the Fianna Fail Nostalgia trick because no one hearkens warmly back to the days of John Hume in the Nationalist Community.

  • Robin Keogh

    Thanks Jolly but I won’t have time to hop over to the UK on this occasion.

  • mickfealty

    That’s GB old chap, according to the GFA.

  • Jollyraj

    My bad. I thought by ‘6 counties’ you were indulging in the farcical pretence that Republicans sometimes indulge in (when they remember to) that the 6 counties of NI is actually part of Ireland proper. I should have known you were above that. Which 6 of the 26 will you be in?

  • Robin Keogh

    Less of the ‘old’ if you don’t mind 🙂

  • Robin Keogh

    I shall be in our beautiful second city, Belfast. I will also be around Irelands eclesiastical capital of armagh, and possibly even parts of county Derry.

  • Jollyraj

    My goodness. You’ll never win round the moderate unionist like myself with that kind of land-grabbing chat, Robin.

  • Robin Keogh

    Jolly, that’s hilarious. Moderate Unionist ?!

  • Jollyraj

    Why, yes, Robin. You don’t consider me as a moderate unionist? I wonder, then, how a moderate unionist would be in your opinion. Would you consider yourself a moderate Republican?

  • Robin Keogh

    I dont define myself on the basis of a political ideology. I have a set of beliefs and principles that apply across a wide spectrum of social, polictical and cultural spheres. I reject extremes and celebrate diversity, does that put me in a moderate box? I dunno. I will let you decide as suits your needs.

  • Croiteir

    That is a sure recipe for oblivion

  • mickfealty

    I wonder (out loud) if they are planning to extend that goading into the campaign proper? Getting in Martin’s face would be a first for the SDLP, and it could work for them if he doesn’t hold his cool.

  • Robin Keogh

    It would be no harm, they need to get a fire in their belly. And they need to get their schit together before Fianna Fail arrive in three years time.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well Alan I think called the section she was speaking in lacklustre

  • mickfealty

    Quite. Although fire isn’t everything. Nor is the expected arrival of another party. Getting people on the offense to defend (which is what I think the anger was about) is good tactics in my book. They will need to fight hard not to leave it as a hostage to fortune.

  • Robin Keogh

    Expected arrival? Are FF going back on their stated in tensions? Surely not.

  • Nevin

    Alan, in his own words:

    the remarks from economist Paul Gosling and Cathy Gormley-Heenan at the start of a panel discussion about “Delivering Better Government For All” are worth a listen.

  • mickfealty

    Not unless you know something we don’t?

  • Jack Stone

    I think the SDLP is facing oblivion as it is. Fianna Fail is planning to run candidates in Northern Ireland in 2019. In December 2015 the Labour Party in Northern Ireland voted to contest candidates in Northern Ireland. The Nationalist Anti-Sinn Fein vote is about to get squeezed. So unless the SDLP is growing it’s appeal, it will be replaced by more dynamic parties with a greater appeal. It is either change or fade away. The SDLP needs a positive focus.

  • mickfealty

    I see what you are saying, but it’s not really a case of either/or. More that they have to find some elegant way of fighting on two fronts without diluting their own voice.

    The first full week of the southern campaign was good example when Micheal Martin got himself exactly half-way between Enda and Gerry and hammered both of them on crime.

    They cannot drop nationalism after all this time. As it is it’s burden they’ve long shirked over the last twenty years and as Croiteir says they’ve been on the road to oblivion has a result.

    A policy focus within a more urbane nationalist discourse allows them to take up issues within the commonweal, and hammer opponents on a cross community rather than a tribal basis.

    I predict a policy war, which could get ugly.

  • mickfealty

    I think you have to take account of the fact that was probably the best speech from a nationalist leader in 25 years. How do we know that? Well, for a starter Mark Carruthers and Rick Wilford actually talked about the content of the speech rather than how bad it was, or what a weak position they are in.

    Let’s be clear the overall standard in Nationalist politics in NI more long been swinging back to the Nadir of Eddie McAteer’s days. You really don’t have to be that good at policy to stand head and shoulders above your rivals to power. Do you?